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The One Ring Forums: Tolkien Topics: Reading Room:
**JRRT: Artist & Illustrator. The Hobbit, Part II – Open Discussion**


Feb 26 2007, 6:02am

Post #1 of 6 (634 views)
**JRRT: Artist & Illustrator. The Hobbit, Part II – Open Discussion** Can't Post

*tap, tap* Is this thing on? It’s Monday, technically. Can I finish up, here? Had to watch the Oscars, after all.

Well, we’ve staggered through a second week on The Hobbit chapter from Hammond & Scull’s J. R. R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator. The Hobbit was the apex of Tolkien’s ‘career’ as an illustrator of his own works. Although he painted and drew his entire life, none of his other artwork came to public attention until the J. R. R. Tolkien Calendar of 1973 (I think it was that year). I remember being staggered by Barad-dur – it looked nothing like what I’d imagined!

Let that be, for the “Tolkien illustrates LotR” discussion. What I’d ask here is:

What did Tolkien learn from having to prepare publishable artwork for the first time in his life? What did you learn from this chapter (both Part I with N.E.B. and Part II with me)?

Did any of the experience of illustrating The Hobbit inform his theory in “On Fairy-stories”: that is, that illustration is antithetical to fantasy writing?

What would you like to talk about, that I’ve totally missed?

squire online:
RR Discussions: The Valaquenta, A Shortcut to Mushrooms, and Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit
Footeramas: The 3rd TORn Reading Room LotR Discussion; and "Tolkien would have LOVED it!"
squiretalk introduces the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: A Reader's Diary


Feb 26 2007, 12:00pm

Post #2 of 6 (470 views)
Fairy Stories and the problems of illustration [In reply to] Can't Post

In Reply To

Did any of the experience of illustrating The Hobbit inform his theory in “On Fairy-stories”: that is, that illustration is antithetical to fantasy writing?

What would you like to talk about, that I’ve totally missed?

It's an interesting question: did the preparation of illustrations for the Hobbit inform Tolkien's composition of this part of "On Fairy Stories":

In human art Fantasy is a thing best left to words, to true literature. In painting, for instance, the visible presentation of the fantastic image is technically too easy; the hand tends to outrun the mind, even to overthrow it.

Although his notes explain:

There is, for example, in surrealism commonly present a morbidity or un-ease very rarely found in literary fantasy. The mind that produced the depicted images may often be suspected to have been in fact already morbid; yet this is not a necessary explanation in all cases. A curious disturbance of the mind is often set up by the very act of drawing things of this kind, a state similar in quality and consciousness of morbidity to the sensations in a high fever, when the mind develops a distressing fecundity and facility in figure-making, seeing forms sinister or grotesque in all visible objects about it.

I am speaking here, of course, of the primary expression of Fantasy in “pictorial” arts, not of “illustrations”; nor of the cinematograph. However good in themselves, illustrations do little good to fairy-stories. The radical distinction between all art (including drama) that offers a visible presentation and true literature is that it imposes one visible form. Literature works from mind to mind and is thus more progenitive.

Hobbit came out in 37, after several years preparation. Fairy-Stories (as far as I know) in 39. So it may be that the very act of trying to draw pictures from his creation informed his understanding of the limitations of drawing the imagination. Although they aren't his first "illustrations" of his own fantasy, are they? He made his Father Christmas and other children's illustrations prior to that. He made many sketches of "Silmarillion" subjects (mostly or all landscapes and/or buildings, as far as I know). So he'd already seen the difficulty.

Great discussion, thanks squire.


"an seileachan"

Everybody's wondering what and where they all came from.
Everybody's worried 'bout where they're gonna go when the whole thing's done.
No one knows for certain, and so it's all the same to me:
I think I'll just let the mystery be.
~~~~Iris DeMent

(This post was edited by a.s. on Feb 26 2007, 12:01pm)


Feb 26 2007, 12:18pm

Post #3 of 6 (466 views)
Thanks, and calendars [In reply to] Can't Post

Thanks for a good discussion this week. I love The Hobbit illustrations, even his microscopic Bilbo in a giant Bag End! It is always interesting to see Tolkien trying to achieve the proper balance between whimsy and "epic" grandeur in those illustrations. I agree with you that he is better as an abstract graphic artist than as a landscape or portrait artist.

For those who are interested in the calendars, this is a good site to bookmark:


(Formerly drogo of the two names!)

(This post was edited by drogo on Feb 26 2007, 12:23pm)


Feb 27 2007, 11:06am

Post #4 of 6 (437 views)
With the exception of Smaug, Tolkien did not draw his most fantastical visions. [In reply to] Can't Post

Bilbo is a drawn as a small human, the stone trolls as large humans, and the Giant Eagle as a large eagle, but none of them are as fantastical as a dragon, a Nazgul, a Balrog, or an ent. Or, to stick to The Hobbit, none of them are as fantastical as a cave full of orcs, Gollum, dogs serving dinner, or a man turning into a bear. For the most part Tolkien simply drew the realistic settings for his fantastical stories.

Tolkien certainly read fantasies, and indeed lived through what some call the golden age of children's illustration. I don't think his dissatisfaction with fantasy drawings was based solely on his own limitations as an artist. He loved ambiguity, and many illustrations, no matter how well done, destroyed ambiguity, imposing the artist's vision on the reader. Tolkien continued to draw for his own pleasure or to aid him in imagining Middle-earth, but I don't think he had any desire to illustrate LotR as he had illustrated The Hobbit.

I do think Tolkien's abilities as an illustrator come through in his prose descriptions of the settings for his stories. As in his drawings, Tolkien often visualizes the settings in detail, but the inhabitants of those settings in deliberately ambiguous terms. Thus we really have no idea of the color of Legolas's hair, or whether Aragorn had a beard, but we have a very good idea of Bag End, Bombadil's house, the Barrow-downs, the Prancing Pony, Weathertop, and so on through Minas Tirith, Ithilien, Cirith Ungol, and the geography of Mordor. (Among the settings in LotR, only Orthanc and Barad-dur remain difficult for me to visualize, because Orthanc is supposed to look like it was not made by human hands, whatever that means, and Barad-dur is only seen in the distance, and only described as immense.)

Daughter of Nienna
Grey Havens

Mar 2 2007, 7:11pm

Post #5 of 6 (406 views)
Mahalo Nui Loa [In reply to] Can't Post

I just want to thank you for a great week. I tried to participate as much as I could. You put so much thought into your questions and hard work into your posts. Thankyou.

Websites Directory, my drawings, Aloha & Mahalo

Nienna: “those who hearken to her learn pity, and endurance in hope . . . All those who wait in Mandos cry to her, for she brings strength to the spirit and turns sorrow to wisdom." — Valaquenta

Forum Admin / Moderator

Mar 14 2007, 1:17am

Post #6 of 6 (449 views)
What did Tolkien learn? [In reply to] Can't Post

Well, he learned he'd have to alter pictures to suit publishers' constraints on types of acceptable media, and that what he'd like to see in print will not always be what fits their needs.

What's amazing is that his pictures suited the tone of The Hobbit so well. Few writers can do that. The pictures are not "perfect", but they help add definition to the story.

Thank you (a bit belatedly) for finishing this up for us! It's always a treat to take a look at the Master's handiwork.

"Confusticate and bebother these dwarves!"


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